Monthly Archives: December 2016

Common Injuries for Postal Workers

injuries

Any federal employee can get hurt or develop an illness while working. However, it seems postal workers are more likely to become injured or ill while working than other federal workers. This post will look at some of the most common injuries or illnesses that affect postal workers; dog bites, falls, car accidents, repetitive motion, and mailing hazardous material.

Letter or Postal Carrier

These carriers deliver the mail in any weather; rain, snow, sleet, wind, heat, and extreme cold. Also, their route may require them to walk 10-15 miles per day. Both city and rural letter carriers carry mailbags weighing up to 35 pounds; however, rural carriers drive much more than city carriers. They both must load and unload trays and containers that may weigh up to 70 pounds.

injuriesCar accidents

This is a no brainer. A car accident can happen at any moment on any given day. Postal workers can sustain mild or life-threatening injuries due to one. Of course, this can lead to being out of work for long periods of time and being unable to perform essential job duties. Slick road conditions from rain and ice can play a part as well.

injuriesSlips and Falls

Because letter carriers deliver mail in any type of weather, a slip or fall is extremely common. Walking on sidewalks and up and down stairs that haven’t been cleared of snow makes for very slippery and unsafe conditions. Also, poor maintenance on sidewalks and stairs alike can cause falls and trips, especially if covered up by snow.

Repetitive Motion Injuriesinjuries

Doing the same movement repeatedly, in any job, can cause injuries to that part of the body. This is especially true with mail carriers who “case their route” before heading out and delivering mail. Carrying a heavy mail bag on the same shoulder and walking the same mail route day after day are examples of repetitive motions that can be harmful.

injuriesDog Bites

The USPS says that dog attacks rose 14 percent in 2015 (the most recent data available) up to 6,549. One reason for this increase may be that there was an increase in packages delivered; 4.5 billion in 2015 up from 3.3 billion in 2011. In an effort to keep up with UPS and FedEx, the USPS shifted their service to weekends and evenings when more people are home and able to sign for their orders. This increased the odds of dog attacks.

Most carriers carry “Back Off”—a dog repellant made especially for postal workers, with cayenne pepper extract.

Here is a list of the top cities with the most dog attacks in 2015.

injuriesHazardous Material

While less common, handling packages containing hazardous material can be very dangerous for postal workers. Illness, or even death, can occur. We saw that during the Anthrax attacks in 2001.

Just recently, the USPS was fined over $342 thousand for exposing MD postal workers to bloodborne pathogens. OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) responded to employee complaints that they were exposed to blood and other potentially infectious bodily fluids while handling packages. These packages were labeled as containing biological infectious materials.

 

Mail Clerks/Handlers

Repetitive stress from sorting mail is a common injury for these workers. They spend most of their day doing that. Lifting heavy boxes and pushing heavy containers around causes injuries to them as well.

Postal workers have one of the highest probabilities of becoming injured or ill because of their job. They are also the largest agency that we work with. We have helped countless postal workers with their federal disability retirement cases. If you are a postal worker who can no longer perform your job duties, please don’t hesitate to call us at 877-226-2723, or fill out this inquiry form, and find out how we can help you!

To read more about these injuries, click on the link below.

Common Causes of Injuries for Postal Workers

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Background Investigations at OPM

backgroundPer the goals set by the Office of Personnel Management, the wait times to complete background investigations are double, and even triple what they should be. The targets set for the fiscal year 2016 were under 40 days to complete initial and secret national security investigations. For top secret national security investigations, the completion goal was set for 80 days.

OPM’s Agency Financial Report shows investigations are taking double or triple the time because of contract changes and reduced funding. Acting Director Beth Cobert recognized the transition from the Federal Investigative Services (FIS) to the National Background Investigations Bureau (NBIB) “will take some time, but the agency is hard at work building capacity”. OPM made 400 conditional offers of employment to federal field investigators in FY2016. Cobert says the goal for FY2017 is to increase staff levels by an additional 200 employees.

The most recent data shows the current backlog of investigations is at 343,557 unprocessed secret level clearances, while 72,566 at top secret level. This data is as of the end of the third quarter of FY2016. Also, the backlog of periodic reinvestigations stood at 156,172.

In a letter from the Deputy Inspector General, the move from FIS to NBIB is described as “the most significant institutional reorganization since OPM absorbed DOD’s background investigations unit, Defense Security Service in 2005”. As a result, working with the Defense Department increases the complexity of background investigations and makes them more time consuming.

Two events have contributed to the backlog of cases:

  • Termination of US Investigations Services, LLC fieldwork contract, which led to the exit of hundreds of contractors.
  • Funding shortfalls have significantly impacted the FIS’s ability to grow the federal and contractor capacity. Therefore, there has been no overtime work to address the backlog issue.

To address the issues, OPM has awarded four new fieldwork contracts and plans to raise the cost of conducting background checks. “This challenge associated with reduced capacity has been exacerbated by the inaccurate workload projections provided by FIS’s customers in FY2016, agency workload projections were underestimated by 22 percent, further complicating FIS’s ability to accurately predict and address background investigative workloads. For FY2017, process efficiencies to reduce total man hours to complete ongoing work will also be put in place.”

OPM has management challenges that fall into two categories: internal and environmental. The internal challenges include,

  • Retirement claims processing
  • Information security governance
  • Data security
  • Security assessment and authorization
  • Procurement process oversight
  • Information Technology Infrastructure Improvement Project
  • Stopping the flow of improper payments
  • Procurement process for benefits programs

Along with background investigations, strategic human capital management and federal health insurance initiatives are environmental challenges.

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Leaving Office During the Transition?

transition

The Office of Personnel Management has released the 2016 Presidential Transition Guide. Close to 4,000 political appointees will soon be leaving office. The acting OPM Director, Beth Cobert issued a statement saying, “While the federal government begins preparation for a presidential transition, the core values and principles of merit-based civil service must endure. This guide provides the incoming administration and agency officials who have transition responsibilities with a detailed description of various rules, regulations, and policies that govern the establishment of transition teams, the departure and appointment of political appointees and the treatment of career federal employees during the transition period.”

So, what exactly should you know about your benefits if you’re leaving office with the presidential transition? Some benefits will remain the same, while others will not. Let’s look at these a little closer.

Health Insurance

Group health insurance policies will continue for 31 days at no cost after the separation from federal service. Departing executives can keep coverage for an additional 18 months if they file an election with their agency. A two percent administrative fee on the current plan (or another plan, if changed) along with both the employee AND employer shares of the cost must be paid. If your health plan offers the option to convert to a non-group policy, and you change it, coverage will continue beyond 18 months.

Long-Term Care

Given that you continue to pay the premiums, long-term care insurance will continue at the same price and coverage. OPM will remain the policyholder, and you must change your payment method from payroll deduction.

Unemployment Compensation

Most departing presidential appointees, noncareer and limited SES appointees and Schedule C employees are eligible to apply for unemployment compensation. The Labor Department views these separations as involuntary. Therefore, most departing employees can take advantage of the Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees program. Those also eligible are employees who resign “by request due to a change in presidential administrations or agency leaderships”.

Retirement

Under FERS, you can apply for retirement at age 56 with 30 or more years of service, age 60 with 20 years, or age 62 with at least 5 years of service. If you are not eligible for immediate retirement, you may qualify for a deferred retirement provided you have five years of civilian service. The guide reads, “whether or not you qualify for a deferred benefit, you may elect to receive a refund of your contributions as long as you are not eligible for an immediate annuity.

Restrictions on Post-Employment Options

There are strict guidelines for political appointees who want to “burrow in” for the next administration. However, they can compete for any public service position open to the public. To have the right to be reinstated to a career job, they must be eligible for veteran’s preference, career tenure, or haven’t had a break in service longer than three years since leaving. “This means you may apply for jobs open to only status candidates and don’t have to compete for employment with candidates from outside the government. Agencies don’t have to consider reinstatement candidates for any particular job.”

To learn more about how the transition can affect you, click below.

What You Need to Know if You’re Leaving Office During the Transition

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Agency Spotlight–USPS FLEO’s

In a previous post about the USPS, their law enforcement agencies were briefly described. This post will go into further detail about the United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) and the United States Postal Service Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

lawUSPIS

They are the major law enforcement agency of the Postal Service. Their authority is “crimes that may adversely affect or fraudulently use the US mail, postal system or postal employees”. They protect and support the USPS infrastructure, its employees, and customers. Also, they enforce the laws that defend the U.S. mail system from illegal or dangerous use.

Their history dates back to 1772, making them the oldest federal law enforcement agency in the U.S. They were the first federal law enforcement agency to use the title of Special Agent for its officers. However, Congress changed this title to Inspector in 1880.

They enforce over 200 federal laws and have a responsibility to more than 600,000 postal workers and billions of pieces of mail.

USPIS investigations fall into the following categories:

  1. Fraud—This involves crimes that use the mail to commit fraud against consumers, businesses, and government.
  2. External Crime and Violent Crime Teams—This group investigates any theft of the U.S. mail by non-employees. They also investigate robberies of postal employees and facilities and burglaries. Their investigative function focuses on maintaining the sanctity and trust in the U.S. mail.
  3. Prohibited Mailing investigations—These investigations focus on the prohibited mailing of contraband like narcotics, sexually prohibited material, and hazardous material including mail bombs, nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.
  4. Aviation and Homeland Security—Included investigations are securing and protecting the transportation of U.S. mail and any risk that may compromise homeland security. Moreover, they conduct security audits to ensure that the postal service maintains its’ facilities security from theft, robbery, and natural and manmade disasters.
  5. Revenue Investigations—These investigations include cases where business and consumers commit fraudulent practices by mailing items without the proper postage or use counterfeit postage. This team investigates any crime that defrauds the USPS revenue.
  6. International Investigations and Global Security—They ensure that international mail stays secure and any international business decisions remain safe and secure. Additionally, they help maintain investigations in the U.S. and in posts around the world for protection.
  7. Joint Task Force Investigations—These investigators participate in joint task force investigations where laws applicable to the mail service are involved. They can be wide ranging and involve every law enforcement agency of the federal government.

 

lawUSPS OIG

Created in 1996, the Office of the Inspector General assumed the oversight duties from the PIS. Independent of postal management, they are appointed by and report to the Board of Governors of the USPS. Their purpose is to prevent, detect, and report fraud, waste, and promote efficiency in the operations of the USPS. They try to do this by conducting independent audits and investigations. These audits help to narrow down which programs and/or operations are efficient and cost effective.

To learn more about these two categories of Federal Law Enforcement Officers, please click below.

Agency Spotlight–USPS Federal Law Enforcement

If you are a law enforcement officer of the USPS and you can no longer perform your job duties due to an injury, please do not hesitate to call us at Harris Federal Law Firm. Our number is 877-226-2723 or fill out our inquiry form.

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Agency Spotlight-Huge Loss for USPS

lossIt’s no secret that the United States Postal Service has faced years of hardship. FY 2016 was no exception. While the USPS posted an increase in revenue for the year, they reported a loss of $5.6 billion. One possible cause of the huge loss is the decreased price in postage stamps. In April of this year, the postage stamp rate fell from 49 cents to 47 cents. While the USPS saw a revenue of $70.4 billion in 2016, the decrease in postage price creates an estimated loss of $2 billion annually.

Since 2006, Congress has required the USPS to pre-fund retiree health benefits. Senator Tom Carper (D-Del) is a ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He introduced postal reform legislation last year that would eliminate pre-funding.

The USPS reported $610 million in controllable income, down considerably from $1.18 billion in FY2015. Controllable income is the impact of operational expenses such as salaries and benefits. It does not include pre-funding retiree health benefits, which totaled $5.8 billion this year. Without the pre-funding, the USPS would’ve reported a net income of about $200 million.

In July 2016, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed two postal reform bills. These would merge the USPS Health Benefits Program with Medicare. This would remove the weight of pre-funding those benefits.

Read more about what lawmakers had to say about this, here.

 

Agency Spotlight-Huge Monetary Loss for Postal Service in FY 2016

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Bonus Cap Increased

bonusAfter a six-year freeze on performance awards, FY2017 will see larger bonuses. Agencies can now spend up to 1.5 percent of the aggregate salaries of all non-SES/SL/ST employees for bonuses in FY2017. This change applies to everyone under the General Schedule, wage grade, and other non-senior level workers.

OPM and the Office of Management and Budget sent out a joint memorandum on November 22, 2016, announcing this change. This memorandum states their agencies “recognize that awards programs are valuable tools to help agencies reward employees’ performance excellence and reinforce a high performing culture that will help improve organizational effectiveness. Agencies should also communicate to their managers and supervisors the important role that awards can have in recognizing and rewarding results and exceptional service to American citizens. Agencies should also continue to exercise the authority to provide recognition responsibility.”

The memorandum also removed caps from other awards frozen at FY2010 spending levels. Specifically, group awards, referral bonuses, recruitment, relocation and retention incentives, and quality step increases. The freeze on bonuses and awards for political appointees remains in place.

This spending cap also does not apply to SES members or senior level, senior professional, and scientific employees. In August, OPM and OMB advised agencies to raise their spending limits on performance awards for senior executives. The spending on these bonuses and awards rose nearly three percent.

OPM and OMB want to remind agencies that, “While there is no cap set for other awards and bonus programs falling outside of individual performance and individual contribution awards, agencies should continue to use these other programs judiciously and in compliance with applicable regulations.”

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Congress Seeks to Limit Your Paid Time Off

paidA recent report in the Washington Post has reported that Congress gave final agreement to curbing a practice used by agencies across government to deal with employees accused of misbehavior: Paid time off.  The annual defense bill that cleared the Senate and now goes to the White House for President Obama’s signature limits the use of administrative leave to 10 work days in a calendar year.

Both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate concluded that sidelining thousands of employees every year to often-indefinite paid vacations is not good for government or taxpayers.

Paid time off has been a strategy to get problem employees out of the office but it has cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year. An exemption to the 10-day rule will be allowed when an employee is deemed to be a threat to workplace safety. But even in that case, agencies will need to justify leave for longer than 30 days, get permission from higher-ups to continue it and report it to Congress.

In 2014 the Government Accountability Office advised that it found that 53,000 civilian employees were kept home for one to three months during the three fiscal years that ended in September 2013.

The legislation won’t take effect for 540 days. That’s because the Office of Personnel Management has 270 days to issue regulations specifying details of the change. Then, agencies have an additional 270 days to update their computer and personnel systems to track who is on paid leave.

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Elimination of USPS Pre-Funding

pre-fundingUnions are encouraging that the Postal Service pre-funding requirement be eliminated altogether. Initially, in 2006, the Postal Service pre-funded retiree health benefits for 10 years. That limit quickly rose to 40 years. That’s quite a jump. This pre-funding is completely unique to the United States Postal Service. It also accounts for about 90 percent of their reported loss since 2007.

Over the last few years, plans to remove the pre-funding requirement have fallen through. However, there have been fears of a possible taxpayer bailout, and that has driven reform talks once again.

The most recent plan proposal is to have a required enrollment in Medicare. Jessica Clement, the Legislative Director of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association said, “The mandate to enroll in Medicare Parts A, B, and D would allow the liability to be so reduced that it almost doesn’t exist anymore.” Required enrollment in Medicare at age 65 is standard in the private sector and it nearly eliminates the cost of pre-funding by reducing future health care costs. When an employee or retiree has both Medicare and FEHBP, Medicare pays first and becomes the primary.

NALC hasn’t officially endorsed the bill for a couple of reasons.

  • They want to see if they can maximize enrollment in Medicare.
  • Also, they want to see a hardship exemption for those who can’t afford the added cost.

Sauber also went on to say, “You’ve got to put this in context…you’ve got to ask ‘compared to what?’. The US government is one of the largest employers in the country, and really the proper comparison is other large national employers. And if you look at large national employers, a 75 percent contribution to health premiums is standard. In fact, more than 50 percent of Fortune 1000 companies pay 75 percent or more. You really can’t compare the US government and the millions of people it employs to the mom-and-pop shop down at the corner. It’s a different kind of labor market.”

NARFE believes that most federal employees pass up opportunities to change their health plans, even if they’re overpaying for insurance. They believe because of this; automatic enrollment could be the best way to go. “Given the nature of the federal community, given the decisions they’ve made up until this point, we feel that if you automatically enroll them in Medicare, as the House bill does…and allow them a very short window to opt out—hardship or otherwise; maybe they have an HMO that covers their costs, Medicare would just be an additional cost with very little benefit—give them this short time period to opt out, we believe very few would do so.”

Read more about what NALC and NARFE had to say about this below.

Elimination of Postal Service Pre-Funding Requirement Encouraged

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Larger Than Expected Pay Raise

raiseA previous blog mentioned a 1.6 percent pay raise for federal employees was coming in 2017. However, there is an update to that. In a surprise move, President Obama issued a “revised” alternative 2017 pay raise plan for federal employees. Instead of the average increase of 1.6 percent, the pay raise will now be 2.1 percent.

Taking effect in January 2017, this new plan will still be an across-the-board pay increase of one percent. However, instead of adding locality pay to bring the average to 1.6 percent, there are additional payments totaling 2.1 percent.

Per President Obama, this plan new plan is a response to Congress approving a military personnel pay increase of 2.1 percent for 2017. Also, improving economic considerations and the pay freeze that lasted three years and ended in 2014 helped this decision.

In his message, Obama stated, “Considering the decision of Congress to provide a 2.1 percent pay increase for military personnel in 2017 and reconsideration of current and projected economic conditions, I have concluded it would be appropriate to revise my original alternative plan for locality payments so that the total combined cost of the one percent across-the-board pay increase and varying locality payments will be 2.1 percent of basic payroll.”

The president of the NTEU, Tony Reardon, believed the President’s first proposal of a 1.6 percent pay raise could be improved. He said, “Civilian federal employees made significant sacrifices because of the three-year pay freeze that ended in January 2014. Since the pay freeze ended, annual adjustments for civilian federal employees have also been lower than private sector pay increases. Federal pay raises over the last several years have been seriously inadequate. This impacts morale and the government’s ability to attract and retain highly trained workers. While we still believe that the 2.1 percent average increase that will become effective in January should be much bigger, we believe parity with the military is an important recognition of how much our federal workforce contributes to our nation’s well-being.”

To read President Obama’s letter in its entirety, click here.

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FLSA Regulations are Changing

flsaOPM has proposed a change to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that would revise the regulations that apply to federal employers and employees. If made effective, this proposed rule will bring OPM’s regulations into alignment with those issued by the U.S. Department of Labor.

The FLSA covers all employees, however, gives exemptions to those in positions that meet certain criteria. The three primary exemption categories that exist in the Federal workplace are,

  • Executives (supervisors and managers).
  • Administrative employees (HR, budget, and similar occupations).
  • Professional employees (physicians, librarians, and engineers).

“One of the criteria required to qualify as an exempt employee is that the employee is paid at a certain salary level”. In May 2016, the Department of Labor raised that salary level to $47,476 per year for non-federal employees. The proposed rule from OPM would raise the current amount from $23,600 to the $47,476 level of non-feds.

Along with this proposal, there are two other provisions. First, the three exemptions to the requirement of employees paid above a certain salary to be exempt would continue. The exceptions to this rule would apply to those who; perform different work duties for a temporary period; perform work in a foreign location for more than a week, or are engaged in the practice of law or medicine. Lastly, the second provision is a new one and like the DOL regulations provide for adjustments to the minimum salary level beginning January 2020 and continuing every three years after. This would allow for the minimum salary level to remain in “…the 40th percentile of weekly earnings of full-time non-hourly workers in the lowest-wage Census region in the 2nd quarter of the year preceding the update…”

Learn more about how these changes could you as a federal employer or employee below.

Changes are coming to the FLSA Regulations for Federal Employees

 

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